By Joy Hampton
The Norman Transcript
DHAKA — The two most powerful women in Bangladesh — Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and opposition leader, Bangladesh National Party chairperson Khaleda Zia — have made international headlines this month as elections in the troubled nation resulted in violence.
Despite this, some Westerners are surprised to learn that Bengali women have vibrant and influential leadership roles that are helping shape the nation’s future. It’s a predominantly Islamic nation with constant calls to prayer and laws restricting the sale of alcohol.
“There is a misconception of women in Bangladesh,” said Farida Akhter, executive director of Policy Research for Development Alternative.
Akhter is a leader of the women’s movement in Bangladesh as well as a prominent environmental activist. She said many people in Western nations believe women of Bangladesh are backward, but that’s not true.
“Even if you meet a woman with a veil, if you talk to her, you will see she is very strong,” Akhter said.
Differences in dress required by social and cultural constraints doesn’t mean women in Bangladesh don’t have opinions and strength.
“Women have to come out for economic reasons,” Akhter said. “We can’t just sit at home and depend on our husbands for bread-winning.”
Akhter said 25 percent of Bangladeshi women are the female head of household.
“Women are the breadwinner of those households,” she said.
In some cases, there are no men or men are too old to work in those households. The rate of women as head of household is even higher if you count the many women supporting and protecting their families while their men are working overseas.
In addition to earning a living, many women, such as Akhter, are actively working to improve their nation. A women’s leader and environmental activist, Akhter said human rights and environmental protections are interconnected.
“When we are destroying environment, we are violating human rights of survival,” she said.
Akhter works with two networks that are key to environmental protection. The Women & Biodiversity Network is active in 45 districts, and the Anti-Tobacco Women’s Alliance (called “Tabinaj” in Bangla) is in 56 districts.
Bangladeshi women also have a strong presence in the media. Samia Zaman, editor and CEO of ekattor media limited, said women in leadership are not unusual there.
“In television particularly, we had women in broadcasting from the beginning,” Zaman said.
With the explosion of TV stations in the nation and a record number of licenses issued for stations that will start soon, TV broadcasting has become competitive in Bangladesh.
“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity,” said Zaman, who has worked in high-volume markets before. She is the head of one of four news only channels in Dhaka.
The television market has grown exponentially since Bangladesh became a democracy in 1990. Prior to that, TV was a state-run media entity that served as government propaganda.
“We grew up never believing a word of government news,” Zaman said.
She worked in television in other countries and came to the Bangladesh television scene as an experienced professional, working for the first free news station the young nation had ever produced.
“I cannot tell you how electrifying it was,” Zaman said. “It will never be replicated again.”
Women have a strong presence as anchors, news presenters and reporters in Bangladesh television and radio. There are fewer women in print journalism, but that presence is growing, as well.
Women are a driving force in the realm of social justice and equality activism.
Sanaiyya Faheem Ansari is the senior deputy director for gender and social justice with Ain o Salish Kendra, a human rights organization fighting for gender equality and to reduce the number of working children in Bangladesh.
Educated in law at Dhaka University, Ansari practiced in the human rights field for five years in the Supreme Court of Bangladesh and has spent 15 years at ASK.
Women lawyers also are working in environmental and other areas of activism.
While women are the primary work force in the emerging garment industry, the educated, middle-class women of Bangladesh have long found their place as doctors and lawyers. Now, they are working to help their little sisters.
As education of girls continues to improve in rural areas and in the urban ghetto setting, more and more women are likely to climb their way out of poverty. Some of those may even join the handful of women serving in Parliament.
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